Friday, February 29, 2008

You rang? Part III

Machine: You have two messages, two new messages. Message one, Friday, 5:42 PM.

Male voice (automated, weary, paced): This is the second notice that the factory warranty on your vehicle may have expired and should be reactivated [breath] to protect you against the cost of repairs. If you have not responded to this notification, it’s not too late. Please don’t make the mistake of driving without a warranty. You are still eligible to reactivate warranty coverage. This is the final call before we close the file. Press two to be removed from the follow up list, or press one to speak with a representative now about your vehicle. *beep*

Machine: Message two, Friday, 9 PM.

Male voice (automated but eager): [indecipherable]...records, I’m calling about your credit card balances, and the minimum payments that are going up. You now qualify for our debt reduction allowance program. So press one to speak with one of our agents. Again, you now qualify for our debt reduction allowance program so press one to speak with an agent. *beep*

Machine: End of messages.

Thursday, February 28, 2008

You rang? Part II

Machine: You have no messages.

Wednesday, February 27, 2008

You rang?

This is the first in a series of posts of transcriptions of what is waiting for me on my answering machine when I return home from work. These are unedited, and exactingly transcribed. Italics are used for slight change in tone, often artifical enthusiasm. The observant reader will notice that these calls all came in at 12AM on Sunday. Not true. The clock on my answering machine is hopelessly fucked. I've reset it - again! - this evening so we can only hope that tomorrow's transcription includes not only who said what, but when.

Machine: You have three messages, three new messages. Message one, Sunday, 12 AM.

Female Voice, human:[the hum of dead air for three beats] Hello? [agitated] Hell-o? *beep*

Machine: Message two, Sunday, 12 AM.

Female Voice (friendly, automated): Hello, this is Heather at Accounts Services and we’re calling in reference to your current credit card account. There’s no problems currently with your account. It is urgent, however, that you contact us concerning your eligibility for lowering your interest rates to as little as 6.9%. Your eligibility expires shortly so please consider this your final notice. Please press one now on your phone to speak with a live operator and lower your interest rates. Or press two to discontinue further notices. Thank you and have a great day. *beep*

Machine: Message three, Sunday, 12 AM.

Female voice (computerized, lifeless): …department, we are trying to reach you. The entry form that you or one of your family members filled out has been chosen. You have won. Con-grat-u-lations. Press one to claim your vacation now. You will be spending six days on a beautiful beach in Cancun and it’s all inclusive. So press one now and enjoy white sand and blue ocean of Cancun. *beep*

Machine: End of messages.

Sunday, February 24, 2008



G.K. Chesterton, after seeing Macbeth in 1912, wrote that the production

“gave me, in the middle of a settled and hackneyed story, the electric shock of moral liberty. When Macbeth said ‘We will proceed no further in this business,’ for an instance I thought he wouldn’t—though I have read Macbeth a hundred times. In the midst of life we are in death; in that one dead pageantry, in the midst of death I was in life. I thought for a flash that the play might end differently.”

The brevity and force of Macbeth is often remarked upon, and it is certainly part of achievement of the play, but I do think that Chesterton got at something key; that the tragedy is of free will.

I listened particularly for this line when Moses Dupre and I were taking in Patrick Stewart’s performance at BAM. It was delivered tenuously, quietly, haltingly. Almost as if giving voice to something that needs to be said, but isn’t quite believed. This lack of conviction doesn’t stand a chance when faced with Lady Macbeth’s swift and powerful rejoinder. It was striking, and like Stewart’s performance on the whole, made Macbeth psychologically complex. There was a rich internality to him. Not a goodness, and he didn’t put doubt where wasn’t any, but from the very beginning there was an intelligence to Macbeth which helped to tinge his early soliloquies with foreboding.

Macbeth is of course sorely tested – he must deal not only with a famously pushy wife, but there’s the small matter of [in this case rapping] witches. But both of these forceful presences never fully dominated Macbeth, and when they won out it was because he let them. I thought of an early scene in Crime and Punishment where Raskilnokov has convinced himself that he doesn’t have to go through with his desperate plan:

“Walking across the bridge, he looked calmly and quietly at the Neva, of the bright setting of the bright, red sun. In spite of his weakness, he was not even aware of any fatigue in himself. It was as if an abscess in his heart, which had been forming all that month, had suddenly burst. Freedom, freedom! He was now free of that spell, magic, sorcery, obsession!”

But at that very moment of liberation something is revealed to him that sends him back, which he, like Macbeth, reads as an incontrovertible sign that his fate is sealed. And he enters his apartment…

“like a man condemned to death. He was not reasoning about anything, and was totally unable to reason; but he suddenly felt with his whole being that he never had any freedom whether of mind or of will, and that everything had been suddenly and finally decided.”

This is a terrible situation, but a human one, and there is something terrifyingly recognizable in the tragedy of Macbeth. Sin, after all, is a combination of resignation of will and opportunity. It’s that complicity that Stewart’s performance brought out.

Rock 'N' Roll

“I think the time when music could change the world has passed,” Neil Young recently ruefully announced. I wonder what he would make of Tom Stoppard’s Rock N Roll? Personally, I’m surprised it took Young this long to come to this conclusion. If it wasn’t Woodstock failing to end Vietnam, Farm Aid failing to revive small farms, then it’s his latest album which has failed (as of yet) to end the war in Iraq and impeach President Bush. But I don’t know if there ever was a time when music could change the world, or whether or not that would be a good thing.

This play takes both rock and roll and politics as two of its many subjects. Others include but are not limited to the contrast between theory and practice; material and immaterial identity; compromise and sacrifice, and the apparently, but a little unconvincing to me, haunting presence of Syd Barrett. Interestingly especially for a play that begins in 1968, music and politics are in two different spheres. It’s stranger still for the topic of the play; the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia and the subsequent collapse of Communism. For here you do have a movement that I’d imagine Neil Young would be very interested in, as music did seem to matter. The Plastics became a key part of the anti-communist movement in Prague as symbols of the injustices of the Communist regime. And yet they weren’t revolutionaries. They had their principles (one that would be identifiable to Young is their reported refusal to cut their hair) but they did not set out to topple a government. And the Czech character Stoppard follows, Jan, a former doctoral student at Cambridge now back in Prague, is an intellectual, a rock music fan, but who doesn’t seem to be interested in either the subversive messages of his vast record collection, or in the subversive activity of his politically engaged friends in Prague. Unjustly arrested, he is reluctantly and altogether un-heroically brought into the movement that will eventually help to end Communism.

It’s an interesting take, in which dissidence is seen through the eyes of the inactive. And much of the justification for the Communist system is heard through the pontifications of Jan’s former Cambridge advisor hundreds of miles away. This lends the play its ironic humor, and a bit of aloofness. Stoppard is on the whole good at making characters rather than mere sketches. There is an odd and didactic speech towards the end of the play by a Czech émigré in Cambridge about the declining state of the English character which struck me as out of place, and untypical of the sort of observation she would make. But there are more places where things work, especially an extremely moving speech by the professor's wife, who has breast cancer, about being more than her body.

The music that appears in the play, by Pink Floyd, Bob Dylan, The Velvet Underground, the Rolling Stones, and in what was certainly the oddest choice, the almost never heard “Chinatown Shuffle” by the Grateful Dead, blares between each scene change, though it seemed to me to function more as a reflection of the passing of time than in creating an atmosphere. It’s a dispassionate use of the music of the 60s and 70s, music which is often used as the soundtrack to sweeping social change. (Here I think of the PBS documentary Domino.) The final scene is of the Rolling Stones playing a concert in a newly liberated Prague in 1990. Our characters rejoice at the opportunity to see this band who before they had only heard on record. Rock music has not ended Communism, nor is this concert seen as the fruit of democracy. It seemed to me that this is but one way in which freedom is experienced, and though perhaps not as important as other changes to the country, as other freedoms that would now be open, it was a kind of simple human pleasure previously outlawed.

But not everyone found this show enjoyable. Making my way up from the bar at intermission I ran headfirst into a gaggle of septuagenarians who were animatedly panning the play as positively unbearable. “But it got good reviews” one said incredulously to the group of bobbing grey heads, hunched shoulders, and thick glasses. The voice got a little stronger and more outraged: “It got good reviews!” Here are the true seeds of revolution.

Sunday, February 03, 2008

On Eli Manning

It is just a few hours now before Super Bowl 42 and I want to write a brief note on my strange fondness for Eli Manning.

I am not a Giants fan, nor a big football fan. However, I have always rooted for Eli and have wished him success mainly because he has always struck me, despite his obvious talent, as the least likely of professional quarterbacks.

He seems scrawny in a sport of bulk; soft-spoken and tentative in a game of trash-talking recklessness; utterly lacking in charisma in a world of brashness and celebrity; dazed and confused in an arena of concentrated fierceness; often excluded from the muscular, masculine cameraderie of the gridiron.

Compare Manning to playboys Tom Brady and Tony Romo (who, as has been convincingly argued by a friend, is a poor man's Tom Brady).

Or to the scrappy, feisty Philip Rivers.

Or, inevitably, to his brother who has both an agreeable goofy everyman persona, and is a confident, defiant leader on the field.

Eli is different. And it is not a probing intelligence, or studiousness, that sets him apart. Nor is there an ironic aloofness. Rather, there seems to be something almost vulnerable about him.

A recent article in the New York Times (which you can find on the internet) wrote of his particular bond with his mother, his slowness in learning how to read, the large shadows cast by his elder brothers and father not only on the football field, but within the family. A not insignificant detail is his affection for antiques, one developed in an adolescence full of shopping trips willingly taken with his mother.

This, my friends, is less a path to the NFL as it is to Queer Eye for the Straight Guy.

In a different player, a lesser player, these details might be constantly referenced reasons or excuses(viz. the difficulties and pressures of growing up in such a household), or perhaps trumpeted eccentricites (viz. the antiques).

But in Eli they are simply facts.

So here's to Eli, in whose success I derive an almost paternal pleasure, and in whose accomplishments I find even hope.